Ecological niches?

On the deck of our home in Mount Vernon at dusk, I often find myself looking skyward and admiring the swallows at work. Their wing shape is so distinctive. They define the word “flit” as they zigzag across the sky. I have imagined that each vertex in their path marks their detection of some flying insect and BOOM, one more West Nile carrying mosquito bites the dust. So I am very fond of our swallows.

Of course things are very different in the tropics. Kris and I were in downtown Kandy at dusk last weekend and we were waiting for our tuktuk driver to pick us up. We had a few minutes and my eyes went skyward and I noticed that there appeared to be swallows at work on the local mosquitoes. These birds also had a distinctive, vaguely familiar, wing-shape but it was not the wing-shape of a swallow. It was difficult to judge distance and so it was a little difficult to judge the size of the birds. But after watching for a bit, some came closer, some were farther away, and I realized that these birds were HUGE. Despite the low light level, I could tell that these birds were all black. And then it hit me. These were not swallows. These were not even birds. My internal pattern recognition software finally identified the wing-shape. These were enormous, black, hairy, bats!

Fruit bats to be precise. And they probably were not after insects as, as you might expect from their name, their primary food is fruit. Perhaps they were just passing through. Western culture tends to focus on the fact that bats appear to us to be flying rats. To be fair. since bats are mammals, they can carry certain health risks for humans that birds do not, like rabies (though Avian flu may be changing that distinction).  Some Asian cultures tend to have a much more positive view of bats than Western cultures. In Chinese culture, the bat is a symbol of good luck and prosperity, for example, and images of bats are found everywhere in China. I’ve just learned that Sri Lankans are not particularly fond of bats. For one thing, they eat the delicious fruit that the farmers have worked so hard to cultivate.

As a geographic aside, one of the most magnificent natural phenomena I have ever witnessed was at Carlsbad Cavern in southern New Mexico. Every evening at dusk, thousands of small bats exit the cave. It is dramatic. For a long time, nothing happens. Then, as if someone opened a valve, the air near the cave opening becomes so thick with bats that the assemblage of bats appear to be a liquid. This liquid forms a tornado-like vortex as the bats spiral out of the cave and gain altitude. Then, a liquid rope sprouts from the top of the tornado and the rope elongates to the south as the bats go off to bring death and destruction to the mosquitoes on the Rio Grande. You really should add a trip to Carlsbad at dusk to your bucket list, if you haven’t already seen this magnificent sight.

I will admit that the Sri Lankan fruit bats are so huge and so ugly that they bring our certain primordial fears from some dark recess in my brain. As much as I know intellectually that the bats are positive contributors to the local ecology and that they are neither carnivorous nor blood-sucking, I can not fully dispel my unease at the sight of these fruit bats. Someone filming a Dracula knockoff can come to Kandy to shoot some inexpensive stock footage. Their “hanging length” of the local fruit bats appears to be about two and a half or three feet. Their wingspan is about four feet. The size of the fruit bats can work to the disadvantage of the bat. You can sometimes see them hanging upside down from trees, sleeping during the day. We saw one that appeared to try to hang from a 240V electrical line feeding a house. Unfortunately for the bat, it was so long that its body spanned the distance between the line and the return and it was fricasseed.

I wonder if it tastes like chicken?


Arrival in Sri Lanka

Sorry for the paucity of posts recently. Our arrival in Sri Lanka has been, shall we say, challenging, and continues to be so. We do not yet have consistent internet access or a permanent address and that is likely to remain the case for at least another week. So, please be patient and do not worry about us. We are now in Kandy and the military presence is much less in evidence. As far as the conflict is concerned, tensions seem much reduced here.

If you have an RSS reader, I suggest using it for this blog. If not, please keep checking in from time to time until we get more settled in.


Personal vehicles in Vietnam

In the US (and elsewhere) we have personal computers. In Vietnam, they have what I think of as personal vehicles. These are every form of two-wheeled, motorized, vehicles. Electric bikes, motor scooters, motor bikes, motorcycles. Two wheeled vehicles are popular throughout Asia, but, in our experience, nowhere is the phenomena as pronounced as in Vietnam. Our guide in Hanoi told us that there was one motorbike for every two people in Hanoi, but I would have guessed it to be at least one-to-one. On the streets of Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon, motorcycles outnumber cars by twenty to one, I would guess. The streets of these cities are rivers of motorbikes well into the night.

I think of them as personal vehicles because they go everywhere the rider does. Are you shopping at a store in Saigon? Then you just pull your motorbike up onto the sidewalk in front of the store and go in. Never mind that pedestrians like us were then forced into the street. Need to take your bull to market in Hanoi? Just  tie up the bull to immobilize him, balance him across the back seat of your motorcycle, and head out. I am not joking here. On the way to and from Halong City, we saw several examples of live cattle being transported in this way. We saw many cargo loads being hauled by motorbike: rice, cement, bricks, chickens, hay, you name it.

And, like cars in the US, every young male wants his motorbike to be a chick magnet. Our guide ruefully told us that some motorbikes cost $10,000. Rueful, presumably, because guides do not pull down the money to spend $10,000 on a motorcycle.

Vietnam, of course, has a script that is adopted from a Roman alphabet, like English. Thus, my brain was constantly trying to make sense of the signs I saw, unlike in China (with their ideographs) or Cambodia (with their Sanskrit-derived alphabet) that my brain could not (mis)interpret so easily.  One of the more humorous misinterpretations I made was seeing “Uc” in the context of a list of nations. I asked our guide if that was the abbreviation for the United States. Oh, no, says the guide, in Vietnamese, Uc (pronounced approximately “Uck”) is the (full) name of Australia!

Vietnamese is derived from Chinese and so have lots of two-syllable names. Ha Noi, Viet Nam, Sai Gon, etc.One of the two syllable combinations that I saw a whole lot of was Hon Da. There seemed to be an association between these signs and motorbikes. Well, I knew that Honda made motorbikes, but the occurrence of Hon Da was so frequent that it could not be just a single brand name. So I finally asked my guide what it meant. Sure enough, Hon Da was the Japanese brand name that we are all familiar with. But at one time, Hon Da was the only brand of motorbikes available in Vietnam. So, now, in Vietnamese, Hon Da is synonymous with motorbike, kind of like Xerox in the US is synonymous with a copy made using xerography. In Vietnam, you can take buy a Suzuki Hon Da or any number of other brands of Hon Da and take it to a Hon Da repair shop where they fix all brands of Hon Das.

The personal vehicle is the revolution that Dean Kamen had in mind for the US when he created the Segway. Of course, the Segway has not become as popular as Kamen thought it might. I wonder if he has examined the motorbike phenomena in Vietnam for clues on what the Segway lacks? Has he tried transporting a live bull on a Segway?


Yangtze River photos uploaded

I’ve uploaded my photos of our Yangtze River cruise to my Picasa website. I hope you enjoy them. The next photos to be posted will be of Suzhou, China before I move on to the photos from Vietnam and Cambodia. However, we leave in two days for Sri Lanka, so I am not sure when I will get time to edit and post more photos.

I have not described the Yangtze portion of our China tour before now. In a previous posting, I described a harrowing tour of Chongqing that ended with Kris and I in a deluxe stateroom on board a cruise ship on the Yangtze River. In a way, shortening our whirlwind tour of Chongqing worked in our favor. We were among the first to board the ship and the ship was only half-booked. So we were among the first to be given the opportunity for a bargain upgrade. We had a choice of either of the two most luxurious cabins that had their own outdoor foredeck viewing platforms and floor to ceiling picture windows to the front and to one side of the boat. We could not bring ourselves to fork over the money they were asking for this opulence, but we did decide to spring for the next class of service. This was a room that was the size of two regular cabins and had a queen bed and a floor-to-ceiling picture window view out one side of the boat. Like the regular cabins, it also had a small balcony that one could step out on to feel the wind in your face. Otherwise, it had all the amenities and space of a nice hotel room; minibar, shower, closets, LCD TV.

After the sun set, we were treated to something of a light show as Chongqing lights up its buildings in colorful and dynamic ways. One building looked like the entire building was the display for some gigantic video game. Multicolored searchlights played over the harbor. We were exhausted when we moved into our cabin, but I wanted to stay awake long enough to watch us get underway.  I was told that the time when we would get underway was entirely up to the people who manage the river and so was unpredictable. So, I surrendered to sleep. As It was, I was awakened at 5AM by a sense of movement and so I stepped out onto the balcony to watch us leave Chongqing. The light show had ceased by that time, but the skyline was still impressive as we left the dock and then we left the lights behind as we glided downstream between the dark shores.

The next day we went on the first of our two shore excursions for the cruise. On top of Mingshan Hill is Fengdu, or Ghost City. Note the “on top” and “hill” parts of the last sentence. This was the second day I thought I might die. Fortunately, most of the uphill climb is taken care of by a chair lift, but just getting from the level of the river to the chair lift was punishing. It was very hot. We were climbing on stone steps. We were hounded by beggars, all attempting to sell us the same worthless stuff. (To be fair, if one had not brought along some water or a sun shade of some kind, not all of the items being sold would be worthless.) If one paused to take a breather, the beggars would descend on one like harpies. Sweat poured down my face and into my eyes. By the time I got to the road level, I thought my lungs might explode. But they did not and we made it to the chairlift for the ride to the top. Fengdu is the site of a lovely Buddhist pagoda and temple overlooking the Yangtze. What makes it a top tourist site is that it is one of the temples that depicts what happens to sinners when they die and go to Buddhist hell. The depictions are detailed and increase in horror with the magnitude of the sin. (It was a photographers delight, of course.) I have not quite come to understand “hell” in the context of a religion that believes in continual reincarnation. It is not considered enough punishment for your sins that you come back as a cockroach, first your human form has to be tortured? For how long?

The Yangtze has three famous gorges that, historically, made the Yangtze unnavigable in the region of the three gorges and, presently, is the site of the controversial Three Gorges Dam project, by some measures the largest dam in the world. The site of the dam is at the gorge that is furthest downstream. So that gorge is not particularly scenic. The upper two gorges are less scenic than they have been in the past as the water level has risen as part of the project. This summer is the last tourist season before the water level is raised to 175 meters above sea level, so we were among those with the last look at the gorges in their current state. My photographs do not do the scenery justice. There was a heavy mist in the air that sucked all the color out of anything at a distance, which generally overwhelmed any pleasing effect the mist created. I would say the Three Gorges are as scenically interesting as, say, Yellowstone National Park, but not as dramatic as the Grand Canyon.

After seeing the first gorge, we went on our second excursion, a boat ride up a tributary to the Yangtze, Shennong Stream. Our guides along Shennong Stream were from a minority people called the Tujia. First we were loaded into a medium size tour boat for the first part of our journey upstream. The scenery is like that of the Yangtze, but everything was much closer to the boat. The stream had perfectly placid sections that created mirror images of the surrounding scenery and dramatically visualized the wake of our boat. When the stream became too shallow for the tour boat, we landed at a dock, were split into groups of about twelve each, and loaded onto very shallow draft boats. We were then rowed further upstream until the stream became too shallow for the oarsmen. Then, the oarsmen got out, broke out ropes, hitched themselves to the ropes and began pulling the boats even further upstream. At this juncture, whatever scenery we were supposed to be seeing to make this trip meaningful had taken a back seat to the sight of these men hauling the boats along with pure muscle power. There seemed to be a bit of sport and a bit of pride to the boatmen. Our “captain” lost some serious face when, first, he lost a rowing race to the boat behind us, much to the delight of the Chinese passengers in said boat. (Passengers were divided into groups by the language used by their Tujia guides; Chinese or English.) Then, just as we were making the transition to being pulled, our captain ran us aground. It turned out to be remarkably difficult to refloat us and our captain became the object of ridicule by the crewmen on other boats. A more experienced man practically shoved our captain aside to set things right and (thankfully) preventing us from overturning as they got the boat turned back downstream for the return trip. We then returned the way we had come and re-boarded our cruise boat.

The last “excursion” turned out to be mandatory. One could not get out of a bus tour of the Three Gorges Dam project. Actually there are many of us who wanted to and some complained quite bitterly. This mandatory excursion included a full airport-style security check and every passenger on the bus was asked to put all of their prescription medicines into a common bag. This latter was nonsense. The outside of the bus was swept with an explosives sniffer and the guide claimed that prescription medicines had set off the alarm in the past. Given the distance of the sniffer from the passengers, it would have surprise me greatly if an entire stick of dynamite would have been detected from outside the bus. Given the expectations of privacy of foreign visitors, even if I were wrong, they should do the research to determine what classes of medicines might give false positives. As it was, I simply opted not to respond to their request for my medicines. Though I would have been happier to have passed up the experience, it is an impressive dam.

From the dam site, we were bussed to Yichang for lunch and then taken to the Yichang airport for a flight to Shanghai. This was perhaps the second worst day of our China experience. After the heat and indignity of the visit to the dam, a flight to Shanghai with the attendent annoyances, we were then driven to a hotel in Shanghai in one of the worst traffic jams I have ever been in. And it was not clear why we were booked into a Shanghai hotel in the first place. Our next objective was Suzhou, an hour’s drive in the other direction from the Shanghai airport. We just had to retrace our route the next day, also in heavy traffic, when we were finally on our way to Suzhou.

On that grumpy note, I end this description of our cruise on the Yangtze and get back to editing more photos.



Yesterday, feeling a bit guilty about wimping out of our planned exploration of Malaysia, we took a package tour to see Malacca, Malaysia. Malacca (AKA Melaka) is on the west coast of Malaysia about 125 miles north of Singapore. It was important in colonial times as one of the ports cities (like Singapore and Penang) on the Straits of Malacca that were critical trade routes both then and now. Malacca is also the capital of Malacca state, one of Malaysia’s thirteen states.

The distance to Malacca makes a day trip less than ideal. The highway from Singapore to Malacca (and all the way north to the Thai border, we were told) is excellent, but it still takes a minimum of two and a half hours driving to get from the Singapore-Malaysian border to Malacca. So add two border crossings and a stop for lunch to the five hour, round-trip, bus ride and it turns out that you get to spend only two hours walking around Malacca itself. The tour company we used was called RMG Tours. They picked us up at our hotel at 8:15AM and got us back to our hotel about 9:00PM that night. There were about twenty people on our trip. The bus had seats for about double that number, so we could spread out a bit. That was good because the seats were cramped for people our size.

The drive north to Malacca was uneventful. I dozed a bit and cogitated a bit to pass the time. Perhaps the most interesting thing I saw on the whole trip was the palm oil plantations. Malaysia once was the world’s largest producer of rubber, with huge rubber plantations covering the landscape. But the price of rubber nosedived and planters looked for an alternative. What they found was palm oil. Palm oil is found in everything from food to cosmetics and is now a large source of income for Malaysia. This income is threatened by the perceived adverse health effects of palm oil in food, but our guide gave us the party line that there was no danger to eating food that contained palm oil. The oil palms, which look exactly like a lush green version of what we in the US all picture when we picture palm trees, covered vast tracts. We were told a cute, ecological story. The forests of palm trees attracted rats, who ate the palm fruit. So the farmers introduced native snakes to the plantations to eat the rats, which they did. But that left a forest full of hungry, poisonous, snakes which created quite a hazard for the palm oil workers. The farmers now use owls to keep the rats under control and the snake danger is still present, but improving over time.

Malacca was named a World Heritage city this last year, just in time for us to add it to our list of World Heritage sites that we have visited on this trip. We spent our allotted two hours wandering around the old part of Malacca. We quickly departed from the tour led by our tour guide. It sounds funny, but we have been on so many tours this trip that we have heard pretty much everything in the Asian guide’s handbook. For example, the first stop in Malacca was at a Buddhist temple to Quan Yin. Quan Yin is a goddess who protects sailors. As you might imagine, every coastal city where Chinese merchants have settled has a temple to Quan Yin. Her temple in Malacca was distinguished by beautiful ceramic decorations, but we had pretty much heard the rest of the story several times before.

So we set out on what turned out to be an odyssey to find a Peranakan museum described in our guidebook. Ever since we visited Singapore three years ago, Kris has been very interested in learning more about Peranakan culture. Peranakan culture is a combination of Chinese and Malay and is peculiar to the Straits region. The Peranakans are descendants of the Chinese merchants who married local women and stayed to live in the Straits region. The males in this culture are called “babas” and the females are called “nonyas,” so sometimes Peranakan cuisine or decoration is termed “nonya.” We had a map of Malacca with the museum marked, but spent a long, very hot spell dealing with the lack of street signs before we finally found the museum. Then, it turned out that the museum attendants would not accept Singapore dollars, even when we offered an outrageous exchange rate. Kris offered them fifty Singapore dollars (about $35 US) for the 16 RM (Ringgits Malaysia) cost of admission (about $4.50 US) and they would not take it. Frustrated, sweaty, and decidedly annoyed, we headed for the next site on our list, Christ Church, a remnant of Dutch colonial times. We had walked one block, turned one corner and Kris hit the jackpot, souvenir-wise. We ran into a shop that, among many other things, sold inexpensive reproductions of nonya ware, the ceramic dishware used in Peranakan homes. Kris had wanted a sample of nonya ware ever since our last visit to Singapore. She also hoped that she could get some ringgits to use for at the Peranakan museum. Well, the shop was happy to sell Kris some nonya ware, but not happy to give her some ringgits. But, one of the shop owners was happy to walk another block with us to a money changer (we had been told that all the money changers were likely to be closed because of a Muslim holiday) who was happy to change Singapore dollars into ringgits. So, Kris got her nonya ware, had a very pleasant conversation with the shop owner during the walk to the money changer’s and back, and we were finally admitted to the Peranakan museum.

The Peranakan museum was a former Peranakan home that was beautiful and beautifully furnished in period furniture and decor. In Asian cities, houses tend to fill their lots up to the walls of the adjoining house. So if you want natural interior light and air circulation, you create an interior courtyard that is open from the ground floor to the sky, no matter how many stories you have. This two story house had two interior courtyards, each with a small water garden on the ground floor. The courtyards made for wonderful, cool spaces on a hot day and admitted nature into the heart of the home. Peranakan style also is characterized by vividly colored tilework; very practical in a house that has openings for the courtyards in the roof, but also very beautiful.

A half-hour in the museum about used up our two hours. In fact, we had to high-tail it back to the rendezvous point in order not to be left behind by the bus. Hampered once again by a lack of street signs, we were pretty red in the face by the time we climbed back into the bus for the ride back to Singapore. We both agreed that there was plenty we didn’t see in Malacca and “next time” we would spend the night so we would not be so rushed.


USPS gripe

Just before we left Seattle, on August 29 to be exact, we shipped two boxes to ourselves care of the US Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission in Colombo by USPS Priority Mail. I had researched the available air freight carriers and found shipping packages from the US to Sri Lanka to be very expensive all around. However, USPS was a bit cheaper. Now I may have discovered why.

Now that we are in Singapore, I decided to begin the process of getting down to business and one item on my to do list was to check that all the packages we sent from the US had arrived in Colombo. The USSL Fulbright Commission reported that the package sent by diplomatic pouch had arrived. This was a bit of a surprise as the Department of State did not guarantee delivery in less than 60 days. But, there is some uncertainty about the packages sent by USPS. This is also ironic, given that the delivery time for USPS Priority Mail to Sri Lanka is supposed to be 6-10 days, if I recall correctly, meaning that they should have been delivered a long time ago.

No problem, right? Just like all the other carriers, USPS has a web-based package tracking system. I go to the USPS website and type in the tracking numbers. Both packages are shown to have been accepted on August 29th. Oddly, despite being mailed at exactly the same time, and from the same post office, one package left the US from San Francisco on September 1 while the other left the US from New Jersey, but not until September 17. And that is the last information available online for either package. So now I am left to wonder: does this indicate that the packages were never received in Sri Lanka or is this just a limitation in the USPS computer tracking system?

No problem, right? Just like all the other carriers, on the website is an 800 number to call. OK, this is a little problem since I am overseas and I am pretty sure that I can’t just call 800 numbers from abroad. Fortunately, there is Connie. Nominally the physics department’s administrative assistant, everyone knows that Connie actually runs the department. She has been of enormous help to me, especially with communications. So I emailed Connie the tracking numbers and asked her to call the 800 number to see what she could learn about the fate of our packages.

Not so fast, says USPS to Connie. In order to check on the packages, they need the following information:

Date mailed
Value of item
Shipping cost
Both addresses
What was in the packages

This, of course, makes no sense at all. First, to supply this information, I simply copied it from the receipt I received when we mailed the packages meaning USPS has the original! Second, I can not imagine a system in which package tracking information is indexed by anything in the list of information requested, except perhaps the date mailed. Finally, what the $*&&* is the purpose of a tracking number if it is not to be the one key used to track packages?

A very frustrating experience.